Politics

It’s Nobel peace prize warm-up time again…

By J Brooks Spector 29 February 2012

The real meaning of the prestigious Nobel Prize is under reflection based on criticism of past recipients. This year’s winner could draw the awards back to Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

When Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel set the terms of his will for the awards that bear his name, Nobel had written of the peace prize that “The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows:… one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The release on 27 February of over 200 names who have been nominated for this year’s award has stoked public reflection on the likely winner – as well as the real meaning of this prize and what it should stand for.

In recent years, a number of observers have argued many of the awards have actually been pretty far afield from Nobel’s original intentions. Not least of these was Henry Kissinger’s award – together with his Vietnamese counterpart Luc Duc Tho – for the peace negotiations that ultimately not only did not end the Vietnam War, but barely predated expansion of that war into neighbouring Cambodia via US air strikes.

More recently, for some commentators, Barack Obama’s award so soon in his presidency in recognition of his efforts to advance a global nuclear disarmament agenda seems to have been a kind of secular global prayer rather than a recognition of tangible achievement – at least so far. Still other critics have advanced the argument that, too often, recent awards acknowledging ecological and environmental concerns are a significant skewing of the award away from the original purposes of Nobel’s bequest – even if those causes are laudable.

Prominent Norwegian law professor Ståle Eskeland, for example, wrote in the Norwegian newspaper, Dagens Næringsliv, on 24 February that he expected the Labour Party’s new member on the selection committee would be compelled to follow the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will more closely. Eskeland argues that the new appointee, as a lawyer, would be obliged to inform the rest of the committee about the real limits of their mandate. “Prizes awarded since World War II have not been made in compliance with Nobel’s will,” Eskeland says.

Of course, criticism of the awards has been inevitable – and stretches back to some of the earliest prizes. When Theodore Roosevelt managed the negotiations that brought the Russo-Japanese War to an end, the Japanese were furious at his award since most of the territory they had conquered by force of arms from Russian troops had to be returned – but not back to the Chinese from whence the Russians had earlier seized it themselves.

Thirty years later, Nazi Germany went into overdrive to prevent pacifist journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who had been imprisoned for publishing secret information on illegal German rearmament, from receiving the award. Halvdan Koht, Norway’s then-foreign minister had persuaded his colleagues on the prize committee not to give Ossietzky the award in 1935 but a year later, a sustained international campaign led to Ossietzky’s re-nomination. Following the announcement, a furious Adolf Hitler barred any more Germans from receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in the future – at least until 1945 rolled around.

Of course, many other peace prizes have provoked the ire of a litany of authoritarian regimes when winners came from their respective oppressed nations. When Aung San Suu Kyi won, the Burmese junta was distinctly unimpressed and the Iranian government was equally unhappy when lawyer and judge Shireen Ebadi received her prize. Then, while awards to Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa won plaudits in the west when they happened, the winners only received decidedly sour looks from the rulers of the Soviet Union and Communist era Poland.

And the Chinese were particularly perturbed, first when the Dalai Lama got his gong, and then, more recently, when Liu Xiaobo received his award. About the latter prize, a Norwegian newspaper noted “Chinese authorities confirmed on Friday that they’re still angry with Norway over the awarding of last year’s prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who remains in prison. China has blamed the Norwegian government for the prize, which angered and embarrassed Chinese officials and led to a diplomatic freeze that still shows little signs of melting. The Chinese even tried to mount a boycott of last year’s ceremony, vainly hoping government officials and foreign ambassadors would stay away.

Then there was that three-person award for Middle East peace. Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat jointly won the prize, but of course peace in the region continues to be durably elusive, prompting some sniping that this award, too, was more than a little premature.

On 27 February, in Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize jury announced that it had received 231 nominations for the 2012 award. Some of the more interesting names are former US president Bill Clinton and the now-in-jail WikiLeaks suspect, American army private Bradley Manning.

Interestingly, while the fact of Clinton and Manning’s nominations quickly made the rounds, no one has stepped up to accept responsibility for having forwarded them. Following his two terms as US president, Clinton has championed a variety of global health and education initiatives via his eponymously named foundation. Meanwhile, Manning’s career trajectory has been a bit different. He is the 24-year-old US soldier who stands accused of the biggest leak of US classified information in history. Besides some 250,000 diplomatic cables, he is also accused of leaking an enormous volume of digitalised footage of US air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although the Norwegian Nobel Prize institute did not announce the full list of nominees outright – it keeps that list secret for 50 years – nominating institutions sometimes announce their proposed winners. A committee of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Storting (or parliament) makes the actual decision of who the winner is. Unlike the other Nobel prizes, the peace prize is given in Oslo, rather than Stockholm, a holdover from the fact that when the prizes began, Norway and Sweden were in a personal union through the Swedish king and the honours were divided between them.

By Norwegian law, the following have the right to submit proposals for the Nobel Peace Prize: members of national assemblies and governments of states; members of international courts; university rectors; professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes; persons who have themselves been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; board members of organisations which have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; and former advisers appointed by the Norwegian Nobel Institute. So if you are eligible to nominate, but if you didn’t get your nominations in already, you’ll just have to wait till 2013.

Others on the master list include former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the man who led Germany’s reunification, Ukraine’s ex-premier and now-jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, and new Tunisian President Moncef Marzouk. In addition, over 40 nominations are for organisations, rather than individuals. These include the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera and Gavi, the global vaccination program partially funded by Bill Gates through his and his wife’s foundation. Bill Gates’ name is also reportedly among the nominees.

As is usually the case, the current year’s list of candidates is a mix of repeat nominations and some new names, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s non-voting secretary Geir Lundestad told the press. Lundestad said, “They are from all over the world, very many well-known names and some that are not so well-known to the public.” Lundestad added that while the actual deadline for outside nominations was 1 February, the five-member committee added some of its own suggestions at its meeting on 24 February. Last year’s prize was split among three women – Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and women’s rights campaigners Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

But despite the high visibility of some of the names on this year’s list, the director of Oslo’s Peace Research Institute, Kristian Berg Harpviken, told the media after the names had become public that he predicts this year’s winner will be none of those above. Rather, he told journalists to put their money on Gene Sharp – the American non-violent social action theorist whose writing gets credit for having been an inspiration to the Arab Spring movement – as the man who gets to give the speech, come this December. (Note to self: now might be a good time to brush up on Sharp’s ideas.)

Giving the prize to Sharp could be a way the committee could deflect criticism it has strayed too far away from causes more directly linked to Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. Harpviken adds that his other highly rated picks would be Gannushkina and the Memorial human rights group, or perhaps Nigerian religious leaders John Onaiyekan and Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar, men who Harpviken says have “spoken out against the misuse of religion in legitimating conflict.”

Now that we’ve handicapped this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for you, next maybe we’ll pick the winner in April’s French presidential election, the winning team in the American baseball World Series this October, the London Olympics marathon winner and the frontrunners in the 2016 American presidential sweepstakes. DM



Read more:

  • The Nobel Peace Prize, the organisation’s website.
  • Clinton, Bradley Manning Among Nobel Prize Nominees at Slate.
  • 231 nominations for 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, including Manning, Tymoshenko in The Washington Post.
  • Critics still question Nobel choices at the Norwegian news in English website.
  • Nobel Peace Prize has often faced criticism from authoritarian governments in The Telegraph (UK).

Photo: Former US president Bill Clinton has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov.

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